How to recognise a super-recogniser

Australian psychologists have developed a new test that aims to identify “super-recognisers” – people with an extraordinary knack for remembering faces, even those they’ve only seen once at the supermarket twenty years ago.

“Being able to recognise faces of friends and family is a skill that most of us take for granted,” says David White from the University of New South Wales Sydney (UNSW), who led the team developing the new test.

“But comparing images of unfamiliar faces and deciding if they show the same person is a task that most of our participants find challenging, even passport officers with many years of experience in the task.

“A major finding in our field in recent years has been that some people are much better than others at identifying faces from photographs.”

Researchers believe that 2–3% of the population have this unique skill, but although it seems to be hereditary, it doesn’t correlate with photographic memories or intelligence.

To identify these super-recognisers, the team at UNSW has just developed the Glasgow Face Matching Test 2 (GFMT2), an updated version of the original test first released 10 years ago.

The new test, as described in the journal Behavior Research Methods, uses the same source database as the original but makes key improvements.

For instance, it doesn’t just ask participants to match portraits – instead, it provides images with dramatic changes in appearance.

“For example when matching CCTV to mugshot images, there may be changes in head angle, subject-to-camera distance, image quality and expression,” White says.

The new test also now comes in short and long versions with two forms each, to repeatedly test participants with equally difficult tasks.

While the test is designed to identify the best performers, it can also find people who have “face blindness”: a difficulty in recognising faces.

The test will be a useful tool, the researchers say, in recruiting staff who need to perform facial recognition tasks, such as in security and forensic settings – from visa processors to border control officers to contract tracers to police.

Recently, the NSW police has been criticised for trialling a controversial facial recognition software, which can access passport photos to use in criminal investigations. The federal government recently introduced a bill to legislate the use of a centralised database of photos drawn from passports, immigration documents, driver’s licenses and more, but it has not yet passed.

Critics point out that facial recognition software is still error-prone and has resulted in wrongful arrests, but White says that super-recognisers can help review identity matches and reduce errors.

“This technology shows close matches to a suspect on a screen, and so human error at that stage can have serious implications,” he explains.

“This new test…is far more promising than training people to have these face identification skills. Our recent work suggests that current professional training courses in face identification do not improve people’s performance.”

All tests are available free for scientific use.

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